July 22nd, 2020
Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part I
The recent escalation in violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is an unfortunate event in what has become a long struggle for self-determination in the case of Armenia and preserving the integrity of national borders in the case of Azerbaijan.
The area, historically known as Artsakh, has always retained a strong Armenian character, both in terms of culture and religion. David Marhall Lang, one of the most notable British scholars on Armenian, Georgian, and Bulgarian history, traces the territory’s name back to an ancient Armenian king: “Historically speaking, the evidence of Armenian occupation is overwhelming. The area’s ancient name of Artsakh probably recalls the name of King Artashes I (190-159 B.C.), founder of the Artaxiad dynasty.” Moreover, in line with Lang’s argument, the emergence of cities such as Tigranakert, probably founded by Tigranes the Great, or perhaps even his father, provide further scholarly evidence that Armenians inhabited the area long before there was even a nation called Azerbaijan.
Ten years ago an archaeological museum was opened in the city with the aim of studying and preserving the ancient Armenian ruins.
Likewise, places like Amaras Monastery, dating back to the fourth century AD, show the extent to which Armenian religious sights have impacted the region. Founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator, the grounds later served as the site where his remains where buried in 338; it’s this religious leader who converted his people from paganism to Christianity, effectively making Armenia the first nation to adopt the religion as its official faith in 301—twelve years before Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, after which it took ten more years for Rome to do what the aforementioned saint had already done twenty-two years ago in his own land. Indeed, it was also in Amaras, at the beginning of the fifth century that Mesrop Mashtots—a medieval Armenian linguist and theologian who invented the unique Armenian alphabet—founded the first school that would use the script which would go on to serve Armenians to this day.
According to Peter Brown in his book, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, published by Harvard University Press, Mashtots “also created the Georgian and Caucasian-Albanian alphabets, based on the Armenian model.” Hence, Mashtots proved to be a man who was interested in worldly pursuits—in the sense that he was a theologian who didn’t simply concern himself with the agenda of his own people. Below is a picture of the simple yet picturesque monastery which has captured the imagination of both Armenians and foreigners alike.
Another important testament to the Armenian presence in the area is Gandzasar, a thirteenth-century Armenian-Apostolic cathedral built between 1216 and 1238. To this day, Azeri attempts to whitewash Armenian history in the region have led to efforts which try to portray the monastery as the cultural and religious heir of Caucasian Albania; an Economist article from 1997 highlights just one of the ways in which the Azeri political apparatus manipulates history for their own ends: “Those sculpted men who built the church and hundreds of others like it were not Armenians at all, the Baku scholars have argued, but Albanians. And the Albanians, they add, were the ancestors of the Azerbaijanis.” Such skulduggery has been challenged by various scholars, including the noted Russian historian Victor Schnirelmann, and recognized American scholar on Armenian studies, Robert Hewsen; the former has made numerous statements (written in Russian) regarding Azerbaijan’s attempt to shift Armenian intellectuals and monuments from the past into the sphere of Albanian history while the latter wrote the following in his book, Armenia: A Historical Atlas: “Scholars should be on guard when using Soviet and post-Soviet Azeri editions of Azeri, Persian, and even Russian and Western European sources printed in Baku. These have been edited to remove references to Armenians and have been distributed in large numbers in recent years. When utilizing such sources, the researchers should seek out pre-Soviet editions wherever possible.” Along with this, the successful obliteration of medieval Armenian khachkars (stone cross carvings) in the city Djulfa to erase any traces of Armenian presence is an event The LA Times has called cultural genocide.
While it’s a sad and unfortunate matter that some nations choose to destroy monuments for the purpose of erasing people’s legacies in specific regions, our purpose is better served if we analyze Azerbaijan’s manipulation of history; the latter dilemma is something the Economist, at least in Gandzasar’s supposed Albanian heritage (as claimed by the Azeris) is also quick to point out: “This is nonsense. According to most historians, the Albanians, a Caucasian people first recorded by the Romans, simply disappeared around the 10th century and became assimilated with their neighbours. All that remained was a territorial name, which the eastern branch of the Armenian church took for its diocese.” There can be no denying that Artsakh has always been a frontier land and that Armenians, too, have engaged in historical revisionism; what can’t be disputed, however, is the overwhelming historical proof that Armenians have resided in the territory long before the Muslims ever arrived—the only confirmation one needs for this is simple math: Islam is a religion founded approximately seven centuries after the birth of Christ; Tigranes the Great, meanwhile, founded Tigranakert—by the most modest calculations—fifty years before Jesus himself was even born; thus, it’s not even Christians who were already establishing ancient cities in Artsakh, but pagan Armenians. The presence of many religious sites such as Gandzasar Monastery (pictured below) show how firmly people renounced their polytheism in order to embrace a monotheistic faith.
Following a war with Iran, the Russian Empire formally annexed what’s today once again known as Artsakh in 1813; however, after the Russian Empire itself collapsed in 1918 and the short-lived republics of Armenian and Azerbaijan were born in 1918, conflicts over the region really began to take shape. Under the leadership of the USSR, hostilities were shelved as the expression of nationality was discouraged in the interest of building a greater Soviet identity.
There’s neither enough space nor time to discuss all the incredibly complex history of the region; what’s relevant to mention, however, is that in 1921, in an effort to bring Turkey under its communist sphere of influence, Joseph Stalin formally transferred the Armenian-settled highlands of Artsakh to Azerbaijan (the Turks and Azeris share many cultural and ethnic ties). As the notable historian Robert Service wrote in his biography of Stalin: “There was a demand from the Azerbaijani communist leadership in Baku for Karabakh, an Armenian-inhabited enclave butting into Azerbaijan, to be made part of Azerbaijan; and the Armenian communists fiercely opposed this on the ground that Karabakh should belong to Armenia. Ruling the Caucasus was never going to be easy after the wars fought between the Azeris and Armenians from 1918. But on balance it was Stalin’s judgement that the Azerbaijani authorities should be placated. Revolutionary pragmatism was his main motive. The Party Central Committee in Moscow gave high priority to winning support for the Communist International across Asia.” Hence, it was this transfer (the motive of which was to spread Soviet influence at the expense of undermining the national integrity of regions), that arguably, has been the root cause of many troubles in the area, and perhaps the underlying cause for the Nagorno-Karabakh War, when the Soviet Union (which had managed to suppress inter-ethnic tensions) collapsed and led to the resurgence of hostilities between the neighboring countries.
After the conclusion of the conflict in 1994, the area, today once more known as Artsakh, fell under the full control of Armenia and is until now heavily dependent on it; the breakaway republic remains unrecognized by the international community, although regional governments such as those of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, the California State Assembly, Georgia, and Hawaii, just to name a few, have recognized the region’s independence on the grounds of self-determination. Furthermore, cities such as Glendale, California (where almost half the population is of Armenian descent) have renamed their streets to show solidarity with the republic; previously called Maryland, lawmakers in a historic move about two years ago opted to rename one of the town’s most scenic strips in honor of its Armenian-American citizens, who’ve done so much to improve the community throughout the years. This is a picture of me standing at that intersection last year with the awareness that I would shortly depart for Italy to study human rights at the University of Bologna.
Similar measures have been taken in cities like Watertown, Massachusetts, as the state, like California, is also home to a large number of people who claim Armenian descent.
In fact as early as the 19th century, notable American personalities such as the feminist and human rights advocate Alicia Stone Blackwell, were beginning to be fascinated by Armenian culture and even translated poets such as Bedros Tourian into English. Without going too much off-topic, Tourian was at the height of his creative powers when he suddenly died at the age of 21 from tuberculosis. During his short life, Tourian wrote numerous poems and plays and was well-versed in writers like Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine, having read them in the original French. Perhaps his most poignant poem, “Complaints,” is the author’s plight in having to accept his own mortality. Though somewhat dated, Blackwell’s translation nevertheless offers a powerful glimpse into the author’s resistance against fate, which is captured in these two stanzas:
Shifting back to the area of our discussion, in the interest of fairness, it’s best to acknowledge right away that not only were both sides guilty of mass atrocities during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, but that to this day one side is responsible for some bloodshed that the other side has retaliated against and visa versa—the vicious cycle continues, which is why collaborative efforts such as this joint Armenian-Azerbaijani documentary on the region have more potential to mend differences than the efforts of politicians. Indeed, Azeris will never forget the atrocities of Khojaly while at the same time deliberately choosing to ignore the pogroms committed against Armenians in Sumgait, Baku, and Stepanakert; however, this has more to do with realizing political objectives than any kind of genuine hate for a people. Bring individuals of various faiths and nationalities around a dinner table and they’ll find ways to resolve their differences; I’ve always been a firm believer in this. In my own program, there are Turks and Azeris with whom I’ve established friendly relations, further proving that politics and people are not as inseparable as society has made us believe.
It’s unfortunate that war had to erupt; based on the principle of self-determination, however, Armenians should have the right to create their own republic, especially given the fact they form and have historically constituted the majority in this region.
The right to self-determination is supported by a large number of senators and representatives within the US government. Furthermore, the Pallone Amendment, which recently passed into law and was co-sponsored in the House Committee on Rules by Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), and Jackie Speier (D-CA), will enhance the oversight of human rights violations around the world; as stated by Frank Pallone himself, the recent aggression by Azerbaijan against Armenia was a key factor in the passage of this particular amendment: “This amendment is especially important now as Azerbaijan threatens Armenia’s safety and sovereignty with offensive attacks staged by Azeri armed forces in Armenia’s Tavush region. The United States should not be aiding and abetting reckless, autocratic states with appalling human rights records for any reason.” Along with the the recent money laundering schemes by Azerbaijan, which were instrumental in securing the release of the officer who murdered Gurgen Margaryan in Hungary (also my article on this topic), the passage of this resolution couldn’t be more timely.
Let’s return, however, to the amendment of Frank Pallone Jr. and the general discussion of support for Artsakh by various US senators and representatives. Regarding the importance which American foreign aid plays in the region, Rep. TJ Cox, a democrat from California issued the following statement:
Along with this, a letter signed by congressmen and women Jackie Speier, Adam Schiff, Gus M. Bilirakis, and Frank Pallone Jr. was drafted, expressing great concern over the recent escalation in violence and demanding greater accountability on the part of Azerbaijan. In the same vein, individual congressmen and women have issued their own statements of concern and the need for greater accountability.
Congressman Tony Cardenas, representing the 29th District of California stated this:
New Jersey Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez stated:
Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, representing the 38th District of California issued the following statement:
The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, whose city recognized the independence of Artsakh posted the following on Twitter:
Congressman Josh Gottheimer, representing the 5th District of New Jersey stated the following on Twitter page:
Congressman Jim Costa, representing the 16th District of California gave this statement:
Congresswoman Katherine Clark, representing the 5th District of Massachusetts stated this:
Lastly, Devin Nunes, representing the 22nd District of California called on Turkey to cease threatening Armenia in the following Twitter post:
Turkey has repeatedly called Armenia’s presence in Artsakh an illegal occupation. Ankara itself doesn’t realize, however, that its military intervention in Cyprus and the subsequent control over half the island isn’t recognized by the international community or any UN member state. As James Ker-Lindsay writes in his book, An Island in Europe: “Concerning the situation in Cyprus, the UN concludes in its resolutions that the proclamation of the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC) is void. The international community collectively refuses any recognition of this entity. Hence, only one state exists on the island, the Republic of Cyprus, whose northern part is occupied by foreign forces. Classified as illegal under international law, the occupation of the northern part leads automatically to an illegal occupation of EU territory since Cyprus’s accession.” The Turkish government, along with Azerbaijan, should thus exercise caution when they threaten to blow up Armenian nuclear power plants, given that harebrained schemes like this would only worsen their own situation—the radioactive material emitted from such an explosion would cover not only all of Azerbaijan, but also Western Turkey. Indeed, Armenia would be greatly harmed, but in the attempt to pay back their foe, the entity dealing out this retribution would suffer the same damage as the enemy he’s inflicting it upon.
It must be repeated that I’ve never had problems with the Azeris and Turks that I’ve gotten to know personally; however, when I see blatant propaganda being posted on the internet by individuals of those nationalities claiming that Armenians have been and continue to be the sole aggressor in this conflict, I must speak out. We’re a small nation and it’s been too long that we’ve had to stand back and watch the greater powers either carve out, map, or exterminate our nation—all the while making promises they were never intending to keep. Where’s Wilsonian Armenia today? Why did the Western powers not do more to ensure that the Treaty of Sèvres was properly honored after WWI? In comparison to the land promised below, our country is a shadow of what it should’ve been. It’s no longer possible to stand back and watch. It’s no longer possible to assume that greater powers will act in our best interest; the consequences of such assumptions have been clear.
It’s true that every nation gets short-changed and every country loses territory; however, some incur more loses than others. Armenia has forfeited plenty over the years and been on the receiving end of political deals gone bad. While the French were busy getting back Alsace-Lorraine and the Italians were annexing South Tyrol, Armenians were being exterminated on the very land where they had lived for years while losing precisely that territory they were being exterminated on, mainly because a government refused to honor legitimate treaty obligations. Whether something similar will happen, no one but God knows. The only certain thing is that Artsakh—whether historically or now—has always gravitated towards Armenia and it belongs there today, even if that sense of belonging isn’t honored by the rest of the world.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.